Two Vintners on Blending

Blending a wine is a bit like mixing paint to create the perfect color. That color reflects the winemakers interpretation both of the site the fruit came from and his or her idea of what a wine should be. It’s one of many steps along the winemaking trail that make the final product so interesting and incredibly expressive. Basic principles aside, blending is about as subjective as the resulting releases. Here are two takes from a pair of gifted Willamette Valley winemakers – John Grochau of Grochau Cellars and Tracy Kendall of Nicolas-Jay.

Q. What is the basic objective when blending a wine?

JC: It depends, but usually it’s to create an accurate reflection of the growing area and the vintage, as translated by the vineyards represented.

TK: When blending we are always seeking balance in wine. You want the fruit, acidity, alcohol, weight and tannins to come into harmony and blending really gives you that opportunity. You can drive the wine to express itself more clearly when blending rather than limiting yourself to the expression of one site or one clone. We’re always working with Pinot Noir exclusively, so when we talk about blending we’re talking about blending from different sites throughout the Northern Willamette Valley, different oak profiles and different clones to make the best expression of Willamette Valley pinot noir possible.

Q. What is your approach to blending? Are you running numerous trials and test blends? Is there a certain time of year you’re typically doing so?

JC: We blend wines a few times a year, but usually in the spring and summer. We assess every barrel on its own, making detailed notes on every single barrel. Based on those notes, we come up with ideas for blends that we then trial. Based on the results on those trials, we fine-tune as needed, adding or subtracting barrels until we find the balance we were looking for.

TK: Blending begins the moment the fruit arrives at the winery and doesn’t end until the wine is blended in anticipation of bottling. We start tasting when the eventual wine is still in it’s juice stage, before fermentation, and start thinking through it’s potential and ultimate destination. We taste all throughout fermentation and élevage when the wines are aging in barrel. We really begin blending in earnest in the late spring and early summer once when wines have started to come into their own and have developed more of their eventual personality. I begin by tasting each barrel from each lot and making notes – delicious, needs time, very fruit driven, earthy, etc. – from these notes I pull composite blends of each lot and begin working them together to see how they integrate. It’s a long process done over many weeks to achieve the final blend.

Every vintage is different but are certain clones or sites you work with pretty reliable from year to year, in terms of what they’ll bring to the blending table?

JC: Definitely yes. For example, Bjornson Vineyard always brings power, intensity and a mineral quality every year, no matter the vintage, whereas Lia’s Vineyard has a consistently plush and round palate, with very powdery tannin. We can always pick these vineyards out in a blind tasting.

TK: Definitely. One of the exciting things about winemaking is really intimately getting to know a site. We’re a newer winery so we’ve only worked with most of our sites for four years now. That being said, we’re starting to know what to expect from certain vineyards and what role they’ll play in the eventual blend. Some are characteristically fruit-driven and provide that beautiful cherry note, others bring the backbone of tannin, and some provide elevation and purity. Getting to know your sites like this allows you to shepherd the wine in a way that highlights the strengths of the vineyards while still respecting vintage variation.

Q. How do barrel regimens factor into your blending?

JC: Barrel regimens matter quite a bit. Our goal is to produce a wine where oak is a seasoning, not a major flavor component. We always have a majority of neutral barrels, but sometimes include newer barrels in the mix to bring more richness to the table.

TK: Even thought the vast majority of our wine ends up in one final blend the oak regime for each site is still really important. You want the best match of each barrel with each lot, as well matched oak can do incredible things to highlight a wine’s strengths. Subsequently, the wrong match can stand out in a blend.

Q. Pinot Noir is so often a stand-alone in Willamette Valley wine. Do you think it or other varietals like it have more blending potential than we give them credit for in Oregon?

JC: I think Gamay has great potential for blending in the Willamette Valley. I got more Gamay in 2017 and I look forward to the blending exercise, blending a Willamette Valley cuvée and making some single vineyard ones, too.

TK: I truly believe that Pinot Noir is the Willamette Valley’s highest calling. We are seeing some incredible things with Chardonnay lately and I believe Chardonnay will soon we thought of as usual to Pinot Noir when it comes to quality in the valley, a very exciting prospect and one I welcome. Outside of those two varietals I enjoy many of the Gamays that are being produced and some of the fun white blends but I prefer to focus on Pinot Noir.

by Mark A. Stock |
Mark Stock is a writer from Portland, Oregon who spent a healthy stretch in the Dundee Hills making, selling and drinking wine. He’s written for Willamette Week, Oregon Wine Press, Travel Oregon, Sip Northwest, SevenFifty and more. Fly-fishing, Icelandic soccer and The Simpsons are among his favorite distractions.